new york | On Oct. 6, 1973, American rabbis interrupted Yom Kippur morning services to announce that Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel.
Unlike the Six-Day War in 1967, Israelis were caught off guard this time. A force of 80,000 Egyptian troops and tanks crossed the Suez Canal and overran a few thousand Israeli defenders. Syrian troops captured Israeli outposts in the Golan Heights.
By Oct. 8, it seemed that unless the United States immediately sent replacement jet fighters, tanks and munitions to Israel, the Israeli military might face crushing defeat.
The American Jewish community committed millions of dollars to Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish organizations appealed to Congress for help. Max Fisher, the American Jew with the best access to the White House, knew the time had come to use every ounce of his political capital to move the Nixon administration to action.
Having made his fortune in the oil business, Fisher devoted himself to philanthropy and Jewish communal affairs. President Eisenhower once had told Fisher that, if he had had counsel from an outside Jewish adviser during the 1956 Suez Crisis, he might not have forced the Israelis to evacuate Sinai.
Fisher worked to make himself that Jewish adviser to Eisenhower’s successors. Sen. Jacob Javits of New York called Fisher “perhaps the single most important lay person in the American Jewish community.” Others called him “Mr. Jewish Republican.”
Fisher understood that the attack on Israel was a subplot in the great power struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. Despite their ideological differences, the two superpowers in 1973 were experimenting with detente. They negotiated critical agreements on nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation, lowering tensions in Southeast Asia, containing China and, above all, increasing trade. In some quarters, support for Israel took a back seat to sales of American grain to the USSR.
Egypt and Syria were Soviet clients, dependent on the USSR for weaponry. Just before the attack, Egypt and the USSR feigned a political falling out, creating the impression that, despite conducting warlike maneuvers near the Suez Canal, Egypt lacked adequate armaments to cross it.
When the Egyptian and Syrian forces invaded simultaneously, they destroyed a surprising number of Israeli tanks, and their SAM missiles shot down more than 100 Israeli aircraft.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir personally appealed to Nixon for replacement armaments, but she did not receive an immediate reply. While normally a strong supporter of military aid to Israel, Nixon was distracted by the unraveling of the Watergate cover-up.
Some in the State and Defense Departments tried to define a “neutral” position for American policy in the Middle East. The Israelis could not be certain that the United States would replace their lost equipment. This left them vulnerable to continuing losses, if not military defeat.
In his memoirs, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reports that on Oct. 7, one day after hostilities began, he persuaded Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to start airlifting U.S. military supplies to Israel. Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, agreed with Kissinger’s approach. However, no one seems to have notified the Israelis of the decision.
In the vacuum of information, Fisher asked on Oct. 9 to meet personally with Nixon. Fisher used his audience to plead for tanks, planes and ammunition to Israel.
Fisher recalled saying to Nixon, “I have worked hard for you and I never have asked anything for myself, but I’m asking you now. Please send the Israelis what they need. You can’t let them be destroyed.”
Nixon promised he would come through. According to Nixon’s autobiography, Kissinger suggested that the U.S. Air Force use three C-5A transports to deliver the supplies. Nixon asked how many C-5As the U.S. owned. Kissinger indicated that 23 were available. Nixon replied, “Use them all!”
Between Oct. 14 and Nov. 14, the C-5As flew 566 flights to Israel, delivering 22,000 tons of cargo. Meir later wrote, “The airlift was invaluable. It not only lifted our spirits, it served to make the American position clear to the Soviet Union. … When I heard that the planes had set down in Lydda, I cried.’
Within a few days, Israeli forces broke through the Egyptian center, crossed the Suez Canal, outflanked the Egyptian Third Army and controlled the road to Cairo.
By Oct. 20, the Soviets and their clients were ready to accept a cease-fire. After some additional days, as Israel expanded its control of territory on both sides of the canal, the Israeli Cabinet accepted the cease-fire as well.
In his lifetime, Fisher held many important leadership roles in the Jewish community: chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, United Israel Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations, Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International. But no role meant more to him and to Israel than his appeal to Nixon on Oct. 9, 1973.